Liberal Practicality as Science

pimp Just encountered a new example of our old friend, liberal practicality. This time, it’s not craven Democratic Partiers, but high-minded scientists:

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet’s most pressing problems.

How, then, does UCS justify its pimping of overclass attempts to extend the Age of the Automobile, to say nothing of its perhaps even more craven and anti-scientific shilling for “biofuels”?

Well, the answer comes right there in the same “About Us” blurb that begins with the above claims to rigor, objectivity, and seriousness:

Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

“Effective” and “practical,” of course, both mean the same thing: politically safe within existing arrangements. Or, even more plainly, hopelessly insufficient.

The results? Take a look at this chart, which shows UCS’ view of the advantages of so-called “electric vehicles” in the three power-generation regions of the United States. Not only might you find it pretty newsworthy to see that UCS’ label for the dirtiest energy-production regions of the country are the “Good” area, but check out the baseline for this bogus EV pitch — a regular car that gets 27 MPG!

What would happen to the UCS numbers if one were to use the MPG rating of the best existing gas cars?

That number is 37, which is 37 percent higher than 27. It doesn’t take much scientific rigor to figure out that a rather base trick is afoot here.

The only possible scientific attitude to automobiles is that they were and are a capitalist pipedream and also a dire threat to the future of human civilization. The only possible genuinely practical policy recommendation is for radical reconstruction of towns and cities to facilitate non-automotive locomotion. To the extent continued car-use must be a transitional part of that larger plan, the only conceivably rational and honest recommendation is to advise people to always buy the best available regular-gas car, and to push for imposition of radically higher MPG rules and heavy taxes on gas guzzlers, which should be defined as all automobiles not within a few MPG of the best available models.

Shame on you, UCS!

16 Replies to “Liberal Practicality as Science”

  1. Michael, I agree as usual, but my attitude towards liberal practicality might be changing – not in a sense that I find it any less despicable, but rather from an opposite direction – that radical politics might be a tad more theoretically shallow than we are willing to admit?

    I suppose I can trace such doubts to reading a few of Allan Bloom’s books, and in general getting more serious about political philosophy and the “range of alternatives” available to us, and, not that I understand all this stuff all that well, but it seems that any serious political thinking needs to acknowledge that there are fundamental, permanent, and unpleasant tradeoffs between the limited political options available to humans.

    And, if a political thinking is focused on thinking on the available alternatives – rather than on what is possible “in principle” (where indeed exciting and amazing things are possible), how is this not a form of ‘liberal practicality’?

    (obviously, a real ‘liberal practitioneer’ is typically clueless of his tacit endorsement of the status quo. But is a conscious renationalisation that radical break may not only be impossible but also inherently dangerous any better?)

  2. Life without danger is actually far more dangerous. If we weren’t all so afraid of physically confronting those who harm us, we wouldn’t accept the pitiful “shelter” offered by the murder state.

    The argument could be made that independent street dealers battling for turf, and guys who hold up convenience stores, are the ones actually challenging the status quo, and that the rest of us are just whining. Such an argument, of course, would flaunt all the moral standards of modern civilization, as well as being highly impractical.

  3. But, HA, isn’t that precisely one of the permanent dilemmas that delimit the realm of the possible political solutions? Apparently, humans have a major difficulty simply disregarding the realm of necessity (e.g. proudly neglecting their next meal, physical integrity, and the survival prospects of self and family in the name of an idea) – typically it simply does not happen (except in very rare extraordinary circumstances), which is why those controlling the means of livelihood generally have it pretty easy through the aeons, revolutions-shmevolutions notwithstanding.

    That we have always had some exceptions – people choosing dignity and the good over anything else – is remarkable and hopeful, but it is unclear of this can ever be anything more than a private experience. Wisdom and enlightenment is surely guaranteed to be only a private experience. (and here we walk into another permanent question – is virtue better than glory? is wisdom better than glory? etc.)

  4. Rebellion is certainly rare, and successful rebellion even rarer, but it’s also the only hope, so far as I can see. Meanwhile, another humongous crisis is all but certain. Do we want to try to fight Hitler again, or vacate the field in advance due to our ennui and confusion? I don’t think it’s even debatable. There’s only one option: prepare and struggle.

    As for Allan Bloom, what has he ever said about the range of alternatives? That we should cede power to neo-Platonist philosopher kings? That supposedly more serious and definitely more reactionary colleges will solve our problems? Please correct me if I’m misinformed, but this guy is just not a serious thinker, despite the self-presentation and the sponsorships. More like an early symptom of the end-stage dementia of the American Right.

    And let’s not forget, shall we, that we have won and are continuing to win on a great many issues. Race, gender, sexuality. All worlds better than before, despite the Right’s hypocritical silence on where all these all-but-universally-liked (even Tea Partiers respect their wives and daughters, don’t they?) changes came from. The last great battle is — no surpise — class, and we certainly may lose, but we are finally reaching the Emerald City, aren’t we? And, as TCT always reminds, the public is far better on this subject that you can tell from overclass institutions. Why abandon ship now?

  5. Right, but isn’t it also at least partially the case that both Hitler and the Soviet revolution were ‘rebellions’, and both inspired by ostensibly humanist thinkers. Robespierre reign of terror also seems to have been influenced by Rousseau, etc.

    My sense is that in talking about ‘rebellion’ as a way forward (which it can be, in principle), radical politics is in fact silent about the tradeoffs that must be made. Specifically, what would be the organizing principles of the aftermath? It could be that the bourgeois revolutions were so successful precisely because Locke, Hobbes, Hume, etc. were crystal clear about that, while Marx and the left, while rigorous in the economic analysis, have little to say about how are we going to resolve the permanent tensions (e.g. between inclination and duty, communal and individual freedom, who is going to watch the watchers [or what will guide them], etc.). And a rebellion that merely curbs growth and allocates surplus more fairly hardly escapes the liberal practicality charge (not that such goals would not be worthy)

    Maybe I’m misreading him, but I think this is the gist of his complaints – not being serious and systematic about acknowledging fundamental tradeoffs and limitations, and if so, I don’t find it reactionary, though it is an understandable accusation.

  6. It’s quite true (and also understandable) that the left has a great deal of thinking left to do about what fighting means. Socialism 1.x certainly proved that an overthrow is not much of a move toward a decent new society, and also that a willingness to lose and wait (i.e. democracy) is indispensable.

    But Allan Bloom? What does he have to say about trade-offs and limits? He doesn’t recognize that there was anything at all progressive or desirable about the 1960s, and paints the Ideas of super-archaic royalists living in early agrarian slave societies as a model for modern societies. It seems irrelevant to me.

    Personally, if economic redistribution and seriousness about ecological limits is some kind of practically and compromise, then sign me up. What makes me sick is all these fake rebels who are too constitutionally scared to suggest such elementary things.

  7. Our understanding on the likelihood of success is based on a very limited history, which is filtered through to us by elites. When we look at how greatly they distort even things like Hollywood romances, it’s remarkable that we believe whatever Oxford University Press publishes about the Magna Carta–these people are vile and untrustworthy. Who’s to say that society wasn’t idyllic up until a few hundred years ago? Or, fine, a couple thousand?

    Many animals, in a “state of nature,” live in rather idyllic settings of mutual cooperation, lovemaking and play, and ample resources. It’s quite likely that humanity has passed through tens of thousands of years of paradise, only to begin suffering once creditor-priests established “civilization.” The little blurbs of hopelessness we’re seeing right now, during this 1-5K year period (or maybe even less; why believe the lies the Romans told about the Egyptians, or the British about the Romans?) may be tiny exceptions to the joyous rule.

    Hundreds of generations of our predecessors, and millions of our successors, may be watching us in this time to see whether or not we lose hope in the face of a mere few centuries of assholes with cars and computers.

    Elites warn us that we can’t afford humanity in the face of the monstrosity of their rule, but if that were so, why are they working so constantly and so hard to prevent the (re?) establishment of decent institutions? Their unsettledness in the face of empathic policies proves the lie that “things must be this way.” Don’t lose hope–when we act well, we are in those moments united with the good of past, present, and future.

  8. No one’s abandoning ship here at TCT, but there is grumbling in the rank( singular) – we are at the outskirts of Emerald City, leftenant?
    The signs are portentous and dismal, and one of our best is reading, of her own volition, the still-not-yet-dead-enough Allan Bloom. Another leftie wannabe pundit quotes, extensively, “Christian psychotherapist” M. Scott Peck.
    Identity politics has its vaunted success, but do you really want to glorify the on-going construction of the nonsensical category of “race,” or the gender-sexuality embitterments? “Struggle” is nothing without realism.

  9. I don’t concede that recent declines into pomo-academic gamespersonship by the heirs of the fight ought to make us forget how real the fight was. Jim Crow was no joke, and neither was the bravery and smarts it took to sweep it away. As for gender and sex, I recommend this as a refresher on how things used to work.

  10. “Hundreds of generations of our predecessors, and millions of our successors, may be watching us in this time to see whether or not we lose hope in the face of a mere few centuries of assholes with cars and computers.”

    Arkie, may I put that in our quotes machine? Lovely line!

  11. Jim Crow was no joke, but as Dr. King suggested, the legal right to sit at a counter was valueless without the legal ability to afford the sandwich. In that, “Jim Crow” was just a different way of expressing the same situation that exists now–a less insidious, more honest form of atrocious/deadly caste discrimination.

    In a just society, we would be as appalled at the “economic” segregation of “today” as at the “racial” segregation of “yesterday.” There has been progress of a sort, and real fights of a sort, but so little has been tangibly accomplished that we’re really running on a treadmill, moving slowly backward (to further contort an already obtuse and unhelpful metaphor).

    And of course, dear Dr. Dawson; you had me at “Arkie.” 😉

  12. There are other explanations for everything Bloom argues, as you must know, Marla. Was there ever really “an experiment in excellence” in American education, or was there merely some room available for it in a few places until it was killed off? And who killed off the glimmers of seriousness in education and higher education, and when and why? What if the crucial shifts happened in the 1970s, after the overclass decided it was going to start doing things about the “crisis of democracy”? Bloom never considers it. In fact, he never really considers anything but what he already knows, and he never appeals to actual evidence about the huge claims he makes. No need, since he was Classically Taught that there was a holy power and timeless sufficiency in “the original good arguments” of “Western” (ancient Greek) philosophy.

    And, on that front, how do you get past his unqualified promotion of a “return” to fictions like “country, religion, family, civilization,” to say nothing of his childish presumptions and utterly unsubstantiated claims about the nature of truth and ordinary people’s view on the topic? Compare him to, say, Cornel West on that topic. It’s not a close contest, despite Bloom’s haughtiness.

    In any event, what “limits” are you thinking of Marla, and what makes you think the left, such as it is, ignores them? To my eye, the ones ignoring limits are the liberals and especially the “conservatives.”

  13. I’ll get the West book.
    Otherwise, well I don’t know enough to judge if Bloom and other Classically Taught dudes discount or disregard newer legitimate ‘serious alternatives’. Regardless, it was refreshing to be reminded that behind the avalanche of writing in both literature and social sciences, the key human issues are very few in number, and most of the writing articulates them poorly. Every single of the ‘policy debates’ i see on a daily basis is usually just a mangled and unconscious citation of something that hobbes, or locke, or rousseau etc. said, and much better and more thoughtfully. Sure, there is the issue of who controls the debate and what’s left out of it, but any new great thinker who succeeds in proposing something new will still have to engage with the canon, and prove why the answers provided so far are incomplete and/or unsatisfactory. I don’t think we can simply disregard it. My own undergrad in sociology was heavily historicist and/or relativistic, and after an initial pleasures of exploring such thinking, I begun to find it exhausting and pointless. So reading Bloom arguing that every once in a while the humanity produces thinkers who can tell us something universal regardless of time and place was important for me precisely because only with such attitude I can actually take their books seriously, and hopefully glean what’s good there and what’s not. What’s the point of reading them just to dismiss them as products of their class ideologies etc.?

    I understand that he is very unpopular for, among other things, arguing against equality and the notion that everybody deserves the same respect. That bugs me as well, but it doesn’t mean that good arguments against equality do not exist. Our heads are not going to explode if we consider them and try to pinpoint what’s wrong with them, rather than just rely on sentiment etc.

  14. Personally, I know of only one good argument against equality. That is the observation that authority (as distinguished from mere power) is a real and useful thing. In any human group, but especially on a planet of 7 billion, some people are going to end up with special skills, and should therefore be treated as elders, not oppressors. But I fail to see how that point puts much of a dent in the importance of the hard-won opening line of the Dec of Independence.

    We know Allan Bloom was a proud elitist. Pretty clearly, he presumed that, until the 1960s, “Western civilization” was internally and externally primarily based on proper respect for real, earned authority, rather than on power, conquest, exploitation, and sheer bumbling and greed. Take a look at how he discusses things like “the market.” It is all deduced Concept (Market = Great Western Idea) and zero actual history and sociology.

    If you can make something out of this stuff, more power too you. I find it merely silly and profoundly, classically reactionary. Bloom longed for a reality that never did or could exist, all while scolding those he didn’t deign to understand as thoughtless charlatans.

  15. Yeah, he can be called reactionary to the extent to which he seems to have believed that modern liberal democracies cannot be improved. Not meaning that improvements cannot be made within them, but that as regimes they might indeed be the best we can hope for.

    However, I don’t see this as a reactionary argument. It is actually simply a resurrection of the argument in the “Republic”, which I personally find fairly convincing – the perfectly just regime is, beyond any reasonable doubt, politically impossible, and all others are horrible. Democracy is mostly terrible as well, but unlike all other plausible and inferior regimes (timocracy, oligarchy, tyranny), it at least permits some room for the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment. Any other regime necessarily extinguishes this possibility.

    So it is true – Bloom (and Plato) are very hostile to political idealism, but they have their reasons. The reasoning could be flawed, but can’t be dismissed outright.

    And i think even the example you give proves it – power (ideally based on legitimate authority) is necessary for any civilized society, but those most qualified and appropriate to be in positions of authority (e.g. “the philosophers”), will never seek power and authority (because they have much better things to do), and will never be in power, except by complete accident (Marcus Aurelius, perhaps?).

    Accordingly, power ends in the hands of the unenlightened and the vicious…

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